29 September 2012

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy

In renowned science fiction novelist Philip K Dick's 1962 classic The Man in the High Castle, America is a divided land. Not only did the Allies lose World War 2, but the Axis powers invaded America and occupied its coastal states: the Germans taking the eastern seaboard and the Japanese the Pacific coast. In between lies the Rocky Mountain States, whose tenuous independence is supported only by its role as a buffer state between the two wary Axis empires. Life is grim for many, particularly in the eastern states where Nazi racial laws hold sway. One man in the RMS has a different view of how history might have turned out, and his counterfactual novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, appears throughout Dick's novel, as various characters seek out its mysterious author Hawthorn Abendsen, the titular Man in the High Castle. Here some characters discuss the novel within a novel, and how their dystopian world may have turned out if President Franklin D Roosevelt had not been assassinated in 1933.

'Abendsen's theory is that Roosevelt would have been a terribly strong President. As strong as Lincoln. He showed it in the year he was President, all those measures he introduced. The book is a fiction. I mean, it's in novel form. Roosevelt isn't assassinated in Miami; he goes on and is re-elected in 1936, so he's President until 1940, until during the war. Don't you see? He's still President when Germany attacks England and France and Poland. And he sees all that. He makes America strong. Garner was a really awful President. A lot of what happened was his fault. And then in 1940, instead of Bricker, a Democrat would have been elected -'
'According to this Abelson,' Wyndham-Mason broke in. He glanced at the girl beside him. God, they read a book, he thought, and they spout on forever.
'His theory is that instead of an Isolationist like Bricker, in 1940 after Roosevelt, Rexford Tugwell would have been President.' Her smooth face, reflecting the traffic lights, glowed with animation; her eyes had become large and she gestured as she talked. 'And he would have been very active in continuing the Roosevelt anti-Nazi policies. So Germany would have been afraid to come to Japan's help in 1941. They would not have honoured their treaty. Do you see?'
Turning towards him on the seat, grabbing his shoulder with intensity, she said, 'And so Germany and Japan would have lost the war!'
He laughed.
Staring at him, seeking something in his face - he could not tell what, and anyhow he had to watch the other cars - she said, 'It's not funny. It really would have been like that, the U.S. would have been able to lick the Japanese. And -'
'How?' he broke in.
'He has it all laid out.' For a moment she was silent. 'It's in fiction form,' she said. 'Naturally, it's got a lot of fictional parts; I mean, it's got to be entertaining or people wouldn't read it. It has a human-interest theme; there's these two young people, the boy is in the American Army. The girl - well, anyhow, President Tugwell is really smart. He understands what the Japs are going to do.' Anxiously, she said, 'It's all right to talk about this; the Japs have let it be circulated in the Pacific. I read that a lot of them are reading it. It's popular in the Home Islands. It's stirred up a lot of talk.'
Wyndham-Matson said, 'Listen. What does he say about Pearl Harbor?'
'President Tugwell is so smart that he has all the ships out to sea. So the U.S. fleet isn't destroyed.'
'I see.'
'So, there really isn't any Pearl Harbor. They attack, but all they get is some little boats.'
'It's called "The Grasshopper something?"'
'The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. That's a quote from the Bible.'

While Dick's novels have become a huge treasure-trove of potential scripts for screenwriters in the wake of the iconic success of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner in 1982, The Man in the High Castle has yet to be made into a film. Some of the novel's frank exposition of the Nazi and Japanese racial theories that are enforced in occupied America would likely be highly controversial. Yet Robert Harris' similar counterfactual novel Fatherland, a detective story set in a victorious Third Reich, was made into a 1994 TV movie featuring Rutger Hauer, which shows it can be done. Ridley Scott announced in 2010 that he is producing a four-part adaptation of The Man in the High Castle for the BBC - hopefully that will be completed and come to screens soon, because this is one of Philip K Dick's most memorable and successful works.

28 September 2012

Social mobility in America

The American dream is that any child can make it from the bottom to the top. That may still be true in politics; the son of a Kenyan immigrant, raised partly by his grandparents, is now president of the United States. But it is much less true, in economic terms, than most Americans think. Social mobility is less easy in America than in other countries. For example, three-quarters of Danes born in the lowest-earning 20% of the population escape their plight in adulthood. Seven out of ten poor children in supposedly class-ridden Britain achieve the same feat. But fewer than six in ten Americans do so.

Similarly, with rags-to-riches stories. It is far less common for Americans from the bottom 20% in childhood to move into the top 20% in adulthood than it is in Denmark or in Britain. On the whole, America's wealthy prosper while the average citizen struggles; the richest 1% of Americans gained 93% of the additional income created in 2010. The pay workers get has failed to move in line with productivity in the past 30 years. But Americans have yet to realise the extent of this tectonic shift. In a survey conducted in 2011 the average respondent thought that the richest fifth of the population had 60% of the wealth, not 85% as is the case. The respondents' ideal income distribution would be for the top quintile to have just 30% of the wealth.

- Economist, 23 June 2012, in a review of Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers our Future.

See also:
Review: Yvonne Roberts, Observer, 13 July 2012
Interview: Jared Bernstein interviews Stiglitz, Rolling Stone, 25 June 2012

27 September 2012

Pukerua to Plimmerton

Coastal route from Pukerua Bay to Plimmerton
(Photo taken flying into WLG, 23.09.12)

A couple of weekends ago I caught up with former workmate Helen for a coastal walk north of Wellington - the trek from Pukerua Bay round the rocky shore to Plimmerton, a distance of 9.5km. The journey took about two and a half hours with a few photo breaks, and included Helen's neighbour's dog Mr Nuts (as I addressed him - certain formalities must be addressed when meeting new individuals, don't you know?).

The day was mild but offered a few 'refreshing' showers during the walk, but nothing particularly inconvenient or unpleasant. The walk is moderately challenging due to the rocky terrain, slick footing and occasional petering out of walking tracks - sometimes we just clambered over outcrops and jumped down onto the rolling west coast boulders. There weren't many other people out, and the few hardcore walkers seemed to be travelling from south to north, in the opposite direction to us. We saw a few of these gnarled elderly walkers on the same route and they tended to be hardy sorts equipped with impressive-looking walking poles, the kind sported in pairs by ultra-prepared German ramblers.

We had initially planned to take the train back from Plimmerton to Pukerua at the end, but Mr N brought about a change of plans because no dogs are allowed on Wellington trains, apart from guide dogs - and with the best will in the world he'd struggle to pass himself off as one of those. Instead we parked a car at each end (combined age: 43), which was quite a relief to the knees after a lively hike.

Posing at the hole in the rock

Driftwood teepee

Twin peaks

In his element

The wild west coast (taken by HC)

Watching the waves smash in

25 September 2012

I am glad they built me of iron; let me rust

A view of the Auckland Sky Tower from the Domain, Saturday 22 September. The tower was completed in 1997, and was designed to be taller than Sydney's more famous tower - although it depends how you measure it. The Sydney tower's viewing deck is 50m higher than Auckland's - you can get married there if you like - but the total structure of the Sky Tower is 19m higher to the tip of its antenna spire. Neither is particularly aesthetically pleasing to look at, but each speaks of its own particular decade of birth - the Sydney Tower is vintage late space-age (construction commenced 1970, completed 1981) and the Sky Tower (commenced 1994) is a sleek space needle, its rocketship design referenced by the now hugely dated Force Entertainment Centre on Aotea Square. The Sky Tower, built of reinforced concrete with composites for the upper works, mainly serves as a viewing and wire-jumping platform when it's not acting as a fireworks dispenser, such as last week in honour of Valerie Adams' Olympic gold medal. It even has a younger, slightly taller sibling - the Macau Tower was commissioned from the same architects and was constructed from 1998 to 2001.

See also:
Radio: Interview - Kevin Brass, Council on Tall Buildings & Urban Habitat, 19 May 2012
Web: Council on Tall Buildings & Urban Habitat

23 September 2012

Wodehouse outwits the critics

A certain critic - for such men, I regret to say, do exist - made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained "all the old Wodehouse characters under different names". He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.

- P.G. Wodehouse's preface to Summer Lightning, 1929, quoted in Isaac Chotiner, 'The Escapist', The Atlantic, June 2012, p.93

18 September 2012

Shaggy's gritty smack battle

Robert and David are organising a party:

Robert: If we invite Freddie, Daphne and Velma there's a chance they'll bring that other one.

David: Oh God! The scrawny one, the one that doesn't wash. What's his name?

Robert: Well, we don't know! I mean, he calls himself Shaggy but I certainly don't believe that's his name. I think it's some kind of hollow sexual boast.

David: I think it definitely is. He's probably trying to present himself as some kind of stud, despite being quite ugly and incredibly cowardly. The last time I saw him he was literally shaking, and he spent most of the evening scampering up and down a very long corridor that happened to be there.

Robert: Well that's certainly no way to make people have sex with you. But maybe we're being harsh on him. I mean, he's so thin and he's always shaking - he's probably in the throes of some gritty smack battle.

16 September 2012

Clarity begins at home

White Cloud
by Tim Finn & Ken Duncum
Bats Theatre, Wellington
12-22 September 2012

Stephen Lovatt & Dena Kennedy
via Theatrereview.org.nz
Last night I went with CP to catch the penultimate performance of Tim Finn and Ken Duncum's very New Zealand play, White Cloud, at Bats Theatre. I've only been to Bats once before, many years ago for a Jo Randerson play, so a return visit was long overdue. The selling point for White Cloud is that the narrative is stitched together from memories and imagined tales attached to old family snapshots; Finn's original songs are interspersed, including the title track, which re-emerges throughout the piece.

The stories are performed by two actors, whose monologues shift in and out of various characters and the snippets of their lives, sometimes overlapping but mostly distinct. Stephen Lovatt is assured and confident in the male role, successfully blending drama and comedy, and Dena Kennedy is likeable too as the female lead, particularly in the whimsical and counter-culturally optimistic 'Have Faith' and when she is quietly affecting in recounting poignant tales of elderly New Zealanders.  

Musical accompaniment is offered by a five-piece band, with lead vocals shared by the talented Ben King (formerly of Goldenhorse and currently of Grand Rapids, and whose solo album I enjoyed a few years back) and Lisa Crawley on keyboards with a dash of clarinet and whistling thrown in. The songs were excellent - memorable melodies and well performed by the band, with deftly handled harmonies. I particularly enjoyed the title track and a puckish number about national identity that offered a chorus something like 'If you're not quite sure who you are / then you're quite possibly a Pakeha'.

Writer Ken Duncum hopes 'this short season is the first step on a longer journey for White Cloud, but we are very happy that it is starting here at Bats Theatre, and look forward to your response as the first audience to see it'. Songsmith Tim Finn reckons the play 'should feel like a family gathering, with all its intimacy and awkwardness, where the ones who are no longer around are toasted and remembered'.

Salvage something that we need to remember
From the wreck of history
Family images of fading splendour
Where they lead I'm following

Oh, and Jemaine Clement was in the audience too, two rows in front, with his lady friend. He wore a natty hat that made him look all New York-y.

Sukita / Bowie :: Speed of Life

Yesterday I went for a daytrip to the Wairarapa with Former Flatmate Al with the express purpose of seeing an exhibition of 12 photographs. Sleepy Masterton may not sound like a likely destination for an art-related pilgrimage, but as it happens the people at Hedley's Bookshop have opened an art space next to their shop, and they're displaying prints from Speed of Life, a new limited edition book of rock photos from the career of the legendary David Bowie. The photos in the book and exhibition are from the long collaboration between Bowie and his friend, the Japanese photographer Masayoshi Sukita, which started back in 1972 in London during the heights of Ziggy-mania and still continues today. Sukita is responsible for many of the most iconic Bowie images of the past few decades, not least being the famous cover shot for 1977's "Heroes" LP, reproduced on the poster above:

Sukita's sleeve photograph, based like that of [Iggy Pop's] The Idiot on Erich Heckel's painting Roquairol, shows a wild-eyed Bowie locked in a rigid pose of serio-comic agitation, raising a flat palm as though he had just mimetically lifted the final mask of artifice from his face.
- Nicholas Pegg, The Complete David Bowie, Richmond (Surrey), 2000, p.231

The 12 exhibition prints range chronologically from the heady fame of 1972, Japanese shoots in 1977 and 1980, up to a more mature New York portrait in 2002, and illustrates the performer's myriad guises and, in the late 1980s during the clean-cut Tin Machine era, his spooky resemblance to David Beckham. The contact sheet for the "Heroes" cover is intriguing, showing Bowie deploying his mime skills in a range of seated poses, both dramatic and comic.

When I first heard about the book I was excited at the prospect and considered splashing out for a copy - but that was before I heard it was $1000! There are only 2000 copies worldwide, all signed by Bowie and Sukita, and the display copy at the gallery was fascinating and beautifully produced - the sort of book that you have to don little white snooker steward gloves before you handle it. The photographs were also signed by both men and were offered for sale at a mere $3950 each. Perhaps I should check my Lotto ticket.

The shop has a long-standing relationship with British rock publishers Genesis, which has led to Hedley's being given the rights to market Speed of Life in both New Zealand and Australia. Sukita even made an appearance at the gallery, telling journalist Tom Cardy that Bowie must have soaked up some Japanese influences in his many visits:

I'm sure seeing the Kabuki shows while he was in Japan gave him some inspiration. He also liked Kyoto very much, and I believe the song in the Heroes album called Moss Garden was written after he visited Saihouji temple in Kyoto, which is commonly called a koke or moss temple.

It was my first visit to Hedley's, and I was very impressed with the range and quality of its inventory. Frankly, I didn't expect to find a bookshop of that quality in a quiet country town like Masterton. With the addition of the art space and an interesting roster of small exhibitions (one on Ans Westra is planned soon), Hedley's helps to make Masterton a destination for weekend trips out of the capital. Take in a movie at the old Regent Theatre just down the road too, while you're at it. Probably best not to anticipate a bustling nightlife scene if you stay over though.  

Bowie I Sukita / Changes
HedSpace Gallery
150 Queen Street, Masterton
4 September - 6 October 2012

See also:
Video - "Heroes" (Live vocals on Top of the Pops, 1977)
Review - In the Lair of the Goblin King (Bowie in Labyrinth)
Photos - David Bowie doing normal stuff (incl. Sukita shot at 1/25)

15 September 2012

Rather less of a communist than first anticipated

[FBI director J Edgar] Hoover’s obsession with the university [of California] intensified in 1959, when a test for incoming freshmen included the question “What are the dangers to democracy of a national police organization, like the FBI, which operates secretly and is unresponsive to criticism?” What followed was one of those laugh-to-keep-from-crying moments that students of FBI history know too well: The bureau acted like a fascist organization by targeting anyone accusing it of acting like a fascist organization, all in order to publicly prove it was nothing like a fascist organization. Hoover’s right-hand man, Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, “swiftly mounted a covert public relations campaign intended to embarrass University of California officials and pressure them to retract the essay question.” The regents soon cravenly apologized, but the bureau still deployed thirty agents to discover who wrote the offending question. They settled on a UCLA English professor named Harry Jones, and they were probably responsible for the poison-pen letter later addressed to the UCLA chancellor reporting that the professor and his wife were “fanatical adherents to communism”—all a bit disconcerting to poor Professor Jones, who was actually a fanatical conservative, and (of course) hadn’t even written the question. That investigation also produced a sixty-page report on the University of California system that read, Rosenfeld writes, like “a description of a foreign enemy.” It portrayed the schools, which Clark Kerr had by then taken over and masterfully turned into the greatest university system in the world—neither Reagan nor Hoover cared a whit about that—as containing “a wide range of political beliefs,” but also fatefully harboring faculty members guilty of offenses such as getting Communist books in the mail, having “immediate relatives” who subscribed or contributed to publications deemed subversive, or urging the abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

- Rick Perlstein in Bookforum, Sept-Nov 2012, reviews Seth Rosenfeld's Subversives ('The FBI's war on student radicals, and Reagan's rise to power'), 2012. 

14 September 2012

A certain slant of sunlight

Cloudlight over Wellington's eastern ranges, taken from Highbury at 7.00am this morning, 14 September.

11 September 2012

"A hundred pounds of dog food?"

Kiss (source:  Peter Cade/Central Press/Getty Images) 
According to Scientific American, every time a buffalo farts in Africa, thousands of dung beetles are alerted to the possibility of manna from heaven. The relationship between the farts and the beetles is a peculiarly honest one. Each species of beetle is genetically programmed to eat a particular kind of dung, so the buffalo need not sponsor marketing surveys to discover where they have to fart for maximum return on their investment. Competing herds do not advertise themselves or offer promo samples. As for the product: buffalo farts do not promise to reveal the meaning of life. Buffaloes do not promise to craft farts that make the whole world sing. They do not promise intellectual respectability if a beetle can interpret their fart sounds with sufficient pedagogy. Buffalo farts promise shit, which is what they deliver.

Among contemporary rock & roll bands, the music of Kiss comes the closest to comparing favorably with buffalo farts. Allowing for a few aberrational songs, they, too, do not promise to reveal the meaning of life, make the whole world sing, or any of that. They scream elemental need, placing as much emphasis on words like "I wanna" as the Ramones, only with no condescending satire to sink them in Middle America.

One of their most dramatic stage moments comes in a break, when [guitarist Paul] Stanley faces the audience alone and gets them chanting: "IiiiIIIiiahah WaAAaaNT YooOOooOOooOOu." He sounds uncomfortably close to Robert Plant, but the moment obliterates the known world aside from primal craving. None of this woman-you-need-love chivalry, none of this hold-your-hand subtlety. (Kiss had to drop "Hard Luck Woman," a song about a woman being hard luck until she found a man, because it was getting lousy audience reaction.) The known world, aside from primal craving, is a vast conspiracy to most teenagers pouring into the job market with no intellectual skills, thanks to the massive rupture that is American education. Ask a Kiss fan why he/she likes the band, and he/she will likely stare at you with vague hostility as the words fail to articulate in the cerebral cortex, and it's too much effort to dig them out. The smarter ones notice the press pass pinned to your shirt and beg to be taken backstage. Ask to take their picture, and they preen with all the bravado their fresh hormones can muster. What's important is declaring "I" to the conspiracy.

Which is transcendence of the inner conspiracy that is growing hair and zits in strange places all over their recently nubile bods. No better way to forget the inexorable march of biology than to lose your identity to four guys who have stepped out of their mundane bodies altogether and simultaneously wallow in those disgusting urges your parents would rather forget. It is pagan religion for adolescents. Bombs, flame throwers (sometimes as much from the audience as the stage), Simmons spitting blood and fire, all of them leaping and running up and down stairways in their platforms, Frehley's guitar smoking and bursting into flames, Criss' six-foot glowing demon cat statues and drum set that levitates 30 feet in the air – attending a Kiss concert is surviving the Normandy invasion. You walk out and you are one of the gods' chosen few, a survivor who can go home and face the enormous blackheads on his nose like a man. Or at least have the inspiration to paint them different colors. Kiss is the greatest act since death.


The four band members stare intently into the mirrors in their dressing room and smear on makeup as Bill Aucoin, president of Aucoin Management, announces that "Beth," their hit ballad of 1976, has tied with "Disco Duck" for best song of the year in the People's Choice Awards.

"What did we win?" says Stanley. "A hundred pounds of dog food?"

- Charles M Young, 'Kiss: The Pagan Beasties of Teenage Rock', Rolling Stone, 7 April 1977

09 September 2012

Der Himmel über Berlin

In my student days in Auckland in the early 1990s one weekly highlight was a semi-regular trip to the Sunday night double features at the Capitol Cinema in Balmoral, which enabled me to catch an eclectic range of film treats. I still have fond memories of the scene in the indie Canadian road movie Highway 61 when a house party goes awry and the guests start chasing chickens around the house and blasting away at them rather aimlessly with high-powered handguns, all set to the effervescent 'It's Not Unusual' by Tom Jones. How could I forget the first time I heard the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack, which was I think long before the film's New Zealand release - the Capitol crew used it as the soundtrack to an old silent black and white Hollywood cartoon sequence. So now whenever I hear Blue Swede I instantly picture cartoon animals gadding about. And it also introduced me to Troma B-movies, which have recently been put online for free viewing; it's not often you can say you've been to a double feature and the better of the two films was called Chopper Chicks in Zombietown. (Which is not saying it was great - it's more that the other one was really rather bad.  As it happens, Chopper Chicks was one of Billy Bob Thornton's first films).

The Capitol also played conventional art-house fare, and for that I'm very grateful, because it enabled me to see Wim Wenders' superb 1987 film Wings of Desire, or Der Himmel über Berlin (The Heaven Over Berlin). Wenders' moving tale of watchful angels providing solace to the troubled souls of Berlin struck a major chord with arthouse cinemagoers, and won Wenders the Best Director award at Cannes in the year of its release. The angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz, who many years later would famously play Hitler in Downfall) pines for the vibrant world of mere mortals after centuries of insubstantial mentoring of people in spiritual need. As he trawls the souls of the Wall-split Berlin with his angel offsider Cassiel (Otto Sander from The Tin Drum and Das Boot), Damiel encounters a lonely trapeze artist, Marion (the radiant Solveig Dommartin), and is instantly captivated. He resolves to renounce his immortality to enter the mortal realm to be with the woman he loves.    

Until last night I had only seen Wings of Desire once - but that didn't stop me from naming it my favourite film for at least a decade after I saw it at the Capitol. The film's superb imagery has entered the language of cinema, particularly its famous scenes of the angels perching on the shoulder of the Siegessäule (Victory Column) in the Tiergarten, listening out for souls in distress. Seeing the film again courtesy of the Goethe Institut's Wenders retrospective brought back all the other tremendous imagery of the film: the virtuoso first scene in the library, as Damiel paces the aisles and greets all the other angels who are providing a soothing presence for those in need, soundtracked with a superb choral piece that heightens the sense of otherworldliness; Dommartin's seemingly effortless and astonishingly graceful trapeze scenes; the visceral slap of a live club performance by Wenders' doomy favourite, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; a pleasing cameo by Peter Falk (TV's 'Colombo'); and the jarring switch from the angels' sepia monochrome world (filmed through an old silk stocking, apparently) into the blaring colour of the mortal world when Damiel trades eternal life for breathing, smelling, tasting and above all true love. It's also intriguing to see the old sundered Berlin, and the scenes spent wandering in the blighted wasteland of the Potsdammer Platz were of particular interest but no navigational assistance whatsoever when I finally visited Berlin for the first time five years later. By then it was Europe's largest construction site; now it's equally unrecognisable with its ultra-modern mix of gleaming office towers and U-Bahn stations.

Even seeing the film again projected from a DVD with all the inevitable image quality problems, as it was at the Film Archive, couldn't distract from the innate quality of Wenders' filmmaking and the performances he extracted from his actors. Ganz in particular is compelling and watchable as the enthusiastic, optimistic Damiel, while Dommartin (who sadly died of a heart attack in 2007, aged 45), who was Wenders' actor girlfriend at the time, is utterly convincing and learned all the complicated trapeze work from scratch in a mere eight weeks. I had avoided re-watching Wings of Desire for all these years, for fear that on second viewing it might not live up to the powerful sense of magic and beauty that the first viewing imprinted on me. But I'm happy to say that I should never have worried: Wings of Desire is a 20th century masterpiece, and one that all film lovers should see at least once.

See also:
Travel - My top five museums in Berlin
Review - Land of Plenty (dir. W. Wenders, 2004)

07 September 2012

The importance of sarcasm

I am happy to say that I was barraged with sarcasm during my formative years. My teachers specialized in subtle-but-withering verbal assaults. Many incidents spring to mind: After jackhammering my way through an entire page of Ulysses in a robotic monotone—how was I supposed to know that James Joyce expected the reader to insert the lilts, pauses, and commas intuitively?—my English teacher announced that he was overcome by the “sensitivity” of my reading and would need to “nip out for a fag” in order to compose himself. While the entire class roared with laughter, I flinched and cringed. But I eventually recovered. Better to be verbally humiliated than whacked upside the head, an outcome that was also on offer, and the benefits of which will doubtless be the subject of some future column.

My home life, I am happy to report, was equally sarcasm-riddled and sincerity-free. When I began to embrace the satins and velvets of glam rock, my parents began pointedly tracking the movements of any traveling circuses and keeping me posted on their whereabouts.

Pops and Mamma saved their best sarcasm for each other, often after drinking vats of homemade sloe gin. Like many dudes of his generation, my dad had a tendency to treat his kids, the fruit of his loins, like some random encumbrance that fate had been seen fit to inflict upon him. My mum was quick to nip this line of thinking in the bud with a little gin-fueled faux-gratitude: “It really was so good of you to take me in off the street, especially with these two children in tow. Have I ever thanked you formally?”

- Simon Doonan, 'Who Killed Sarcasm?', Slate, 5 September 2012

04 September 2012

Submission on the MMP proposals paper

The Electoral Commission's MMP review is nearing the end of its consultation phase, with submissions on the draft proposals accepted until Friday 7 September. Here's my brief submissions on the Commission's findings, with the proposals in bold and my comments underneath - which are clearly made in a personal capacity only.

 · The one electorate seat threshold for the allocation of list seats should be abolished.

Agree. The original intent of the Royal Commission on the Electoral System (RCES) was for the threshold exemption to permit parties with a specifically regional focus, like a South Island Party, to emerge. Instead, parties gamed the system by withholding candidates in key electorates, subverting the intent of MMP by reducing voter choice.

· The party vote threshold for the allocation of list seats should be lowered to 4%.

Agree. Ideally the threshold should be lower, perhaps 2.5 or 3 percent, but this could be considered at the next electoral system review after 2-3 more elections.

· Candidates should continue to be able to stand both in an electorate and on a party list at general elections.

· List MPs should continue to be able to contest by-elections.

Agree both. Weakening the role of list MPs would weaken MMP as a whole, and is not in keeping with the spirit of the system, which holds that list and electorate MPs are equals. There is also not a large enough pool of expertise of potential political candidates to risk instituting an arbitrary ban on dual candidacy or list MPs standing in byelections. Critics of the existing system have also failed to demonstrate that either matter is a serious problem. They are probably ill-disposed to the idea of list MPs in the first place. 

· Political parties should continue to have responsibility for the composition and ranking of candidates on their party lists.

Agree. The onus is on parties to produce lists that are popular with voters; if voters don’t like who’s on a party list then they shouldn’t vote for that party. The vast majority of voters couldn’t care less and would struggle to obtain enough meaningful information to make an informed judgement. My only suggestion is that perhaps list rankings should be compulsory for all party candidates, so voters can be fully informed about a party’s roster, and so the party list can act as a complete historical record. At the moment some electorate MPs drop off the list for personal ‘branding’ purposes (“my only loyalty is to my electorate, not to the party list”) or because they are dissatisfied with their potential ranking. Ranking all candidates could be compulsory, or a ‘non-ranked’ section at the bottom of each party’s rankings could list the non-ranked candidates in alphabetical order.

· The provision for overhang seats should be abolished for parties that do not cross the party vote threshold.

Agree. The existing overhang arrangements encourage voters to game the system, as can be seen in the Maori electorates in the past few elections. The system should take every opportunity to encourage voters to cast their votes for the parties and candidates they actually favour. 

· On the basis of current information it would be prudent to identify 76 electorate seats (in a 120 seat Parliament) as the point at which the risk to proportionality from insufficient list seats becomes unacceptable. New Zealand is unlikely to reach that point before 2026.

· The gradual erosion of lists seats relative to electorate seats risks undermining the diversity of representation in Parliament. Parliament should review this matter.

Agree. In fact the proportion of electorate seats to list seats should be reduced over time. Ideally the balance between list and electorate seats should return to the even 60/60 split envisioned by the RCES. MPs have favoured electorate representation over list seats because they seek the reputation and profile of an electorate MP, which has led to the growing imbalance. The minimum allocation for South Island electorates should be abolished, and in the medium term (perhaps at the next review) consideration should be given to increasing the size of Parliament to 140 members.

02 September 2012

A few whacks of the ice-axe, a few cautious steps

Oxygen tank used on Hillary & Tenzing's climb,
Science Museum, 23.03.2009
After an hour's going the South Summit was dropping away beneath us, but I suddenly noticed that Tenzing, who had been going very well, was starting to drag. When he approached me I saw he was panting and in some distress. I examined his oxygen set and, finding that the exhaust outlet from his mask was blocked with ice, was able to give him some immediate relief. We moved on again and soon reached the worst problem on the ridge - a great rock bluff which looked far too difficult to tackle directly with our limited strength. There was one possibility: attached to the right-hand side of the rock bluff was a cornice and the ice had peeled away leaving a gap running the full length of the bluff and just large enough to take the human frame. With Tenzing belaying me I moved into the crack and cramponing on the ice behind and using every handhold in the rock in front I wriggled and jammed my way up and pulled myself panting on to the little ledge at the top. I signalled to Tenzing and heaved the rope until he in his turn struggled up and collapsed exhausted on our little ledge. I really felt now a fierce determination that we would succeed in reaching the summit.

The ridge stretched on in a never-ending series of corniced bumps and as I continued cutting the trail round the back of them I wondered just how long we would have to go on. We were starting to tire. I had been cutting steps continuously for almost two hours and wondered rather dully whether we would have enough strength left to get through. I cut around the back of another hump and saw that the ridge ahead dropped away and that we could see far into Tibet. I looked up and there above us was a rounded snow cone. A few whacks of the ice-axe, a few cautious steps and Tenzing and I were on top. The time was 11.30 am.

We stayed 15 minutes, removing our masks and so conserving oxygen. After an hour we were back on the South Summit; moving gingerly down the great snow slope, we were able to shrug off the sense of fear that had been with us all day. At 2 pm we were at Camp IX, where we brewed some lemonade before setting off on the long trek down the ridge. We were both very tired, but not too tired to make the last effort of cutting steps down the couloir where yesterday's tracks had already been blotted out. On the Col we were greeted by Lowe and Noyce; the latter had come up that day in support with Passang Phutar, both making their second trip to the Col.

- Edmund Hillary (1919-2008), 'Everest by Storm', in John Keay, ed., Travel in Dangerous Places, London, 2010. 

[Hillary and Tenzing reached the summit of Everest on 29 May 1953]

See also:
Newsreel - Hillary returns to Auckland and is interviewed by his brother Rex, 1953